The Great Debate on Working from Home….by Guy Barrand

Back to the office? Work from home? Hybrid working? Not questions that concern some sections of the employment market for practical reasons, but for some of us used to the traditional office-based environment, it’s all we can talk about. This workforce is agog as to what their employers are going to expect from them in terms of working arrangements going forward, and there’s lots of talk about the pros and cons of the various permutations. Some people are fervently pro eternally working from home, some are desperate to get back to ‘old school’ office working….if there was a referendum, it would show a country divided (well, we in the UK know exactly what that feels like, don’t we).

It’s tempting to draw up the battle lines generationally or perhaps more specifically, between those with parental or caring responsibilities and those without (e.g. ‘I’m loving spending more time with my kids and less time commuting’ vs. ‘help me I’m trapped in the prison that is my tiny flat and I was never that keen on my flatmates (or partner) anyway’. But my point is that such broad generalisations are futile – as an example there’s plenty of parents who are desperate to escape to the office for some ‘normality’ after living through the social effects of the pandemic on their children as well as themselves. Similarly there’s plenty of people without such responsibilities who have loved the freedom and independence that working from home has brought.

It appears that some companies are attempting to come up with a single (and, to my mind, overly simplistic) response to a question where there’s no wrong or right answer. Surely a consensus of opinion is impossible to achieve as it depends on individual preference and circumstances from an employee’s perspective, and from an employer’s point of view, individual job responsibilities?

I do think that a ‘one size fits all’ response is inappropriate, but also symptomatic of society’s desire to homogenise behaviours into overly simplistic labels. Allow me to go off on a slight tangent briefly (maybe a topic to explore in more detail in a separate article), but over the last couple of decades, companies have spent fortunes distilling their ‘brand’ into a set of corporate values. Fair enough, when it was important to try to differentiate your company’s good behaviours over a rival’s less appealing style. But these days, however differently they try to describe them, these values are largely indistinguishable from one company to another. And often impossible to live up to. I wonder too, about whether having a defined set of corporate values sits all that comfortably with messages around diversity and inclusion – in a world where individuality of thought and expression is supposedly welcome, can companies then expect people to conform simultaneously to a set of corporate values? The messaging is confusing.

Sitting where I sit, one of the most common complaints I hear from those looking to move jobs is that the gap between the reality of their day to day working environment and the generic platitudes that constitute a company’s vision or values is hard to stomach. Companies could do worse than tearing up the list of these lofty ideals, and instead focus more on articulating the specific behaviours, dynamics and differentials of the specific team environment that an individual would find themselves working in. This could be used to encourage improved behaviours and understanding within a small team set up, or to be used as a marketing tool to attract candidates to working in that specific team.

The attempt to live up to the set of stated corporate values is influencing companies’ attitude to the work from home vs. office question – firms seem to be trying to find big picture consensus. But surely looking at individual employee needs and their individual circumstances seems to be the most sensible response? I’ve enjoyed the recent announcements of some companies simply leaving it up to their employees to decide their own working arrangements – that seems to hit the mark – in theory at least.

However….I also think this can be taken too far.

Do employees always know what’s good for them? Just because your child doesn’t want to eat their vegetables, doesn’t mean to say you’re going to bring them up on a diet of junk food now does it?

Working from home has loads of positives. The pandemic has shown how outdated many of the old working practices were. For instance, for most of us, the concept of commuting into an office five days a week, and working between the hours of 9 – 5 seems now completely antiquated. Despite the difficult circumstances, the pandemic situation has given many of us wonderful opportunities to redress the work/life balance problem and spend more time focusing on the things that really matter – family, home life and personal happiness. The culture of presenteeism can be safely consigned to the dustbin. We can’t and shouldn’t go back to the way things were.

But working in an office environment has plenty of advantages too. The lockdowns have shown many of us that we can do our jobs perfectly satisfactorily from home, ploughing our own furrows, occasionally communicating with colleagues on points of business. But are we the best we can be? Do our motivations come from within ourselves, or does the physical presence of colleagues or bosses help us achieve yet greater things? If you like your colleagues, being in an office set up can be a lot more fun than working from home – and a happy employee makes for a happy individual. In my view, office working encourages the continued development of social and interpersonal skills; learning (yes, no matter what stage of your career you’re at); speed of reaction; sensitivity to others’ needs and feelings; collaboration skills; opportunity spotting; the ease of asking for assistance; swifter mistake rectification. It also helps engender loyalty to the company and colleagues. And don’t forget, long-lasting friendships spring up by working in close daily proximity with others – and how much poorer would many of our lives be without having the opportunity to develop these connections.

The hybrid model should therefore provide the best of both worlds, but who decides on the balance?

In the majority of cases, the trust placed in employees to find their own working arrangements that suit their individual personal requirements as well as the needs of the business will reap its own rewards – treating people as adults seems a hugely beneficial concept. But in certain quarters, there will be people heading towards the extremes of the home vs. office scale that will benefit from more direction. There will be people who will want to work exclusively from home, when they will be better off spending more time with colleagues in the office. At the other end of the spectrum, there will be those who want to spend all their time in the office, when they’d be more productive and healthier spending more time working from home.

In recent decades, the balance of power has shifted gradually away from employers towards employees – mostly with positive results in terms of employment rights and healthiness of working environments, but occasionally with less pleasant side effects. In my view, these less savoury characteristics are by no means a generational problem as they are evident in certain people of all age groups, but in some corners of the modern workforce there seems to be less evident gratitude for the opportunities that employers provide to those they pay to work for them. This in turn has resulted in an increase in a more narcissistic attitude to how one develops one’s career….and if employees end up having the final say on how they run their working lives, this type of behaviour will only increase. The more solitary existence of home-working won’t help the ‘me me me’ brigade become more integrated or check their egoism.

Employers have the right to expect the best from their employees. It’s what they pay them for after all. So therefore, employers should also have a right to articulate the working environment where they feel you would be most effective. For the majority of us, some parts of our jobs are likely to function more effectively when physically situated in an office. Simultaneously, we are less likely to be able to learn from (and indeed teach) others as effectively over video conference.

The future

What an opportunity we have to change working practices for the better. Working environments (and consequently careers) should, going forward, be able to be more individually constructed according to personal circumstance and preference. But I feel that it’s only by careful consultation between employer and employee that we can design individual working arrangements that are perfectly balanced to secure optimum results for both individual and company.

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